Challenging The Public Sector To Be All It Can Be

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They do it differently in Finland (my photo available under cc license)

They do it differently in Finland (my photo available under cc license)

Dana Goldstein writes about the need to put K-12 school performance in a broader context:

But in general, I agree with Gabriella that parents (and communities) are often missing from the dialogue around school reform. In the new education documentary “Waiting for Superman,” we hear a lot about how the Finnish education system is the best in the world, but nothing about how much easier it is to be a parent in Finland, because the government provides universal low-cost daycare, nursery school, and health care.

Why don’t we talk about parenting more? Because we American optimists want to believe that kids can overcome the deficits they bring from home without having to wait for the United States to become a social democracy (as if). There’s also a long and disturbing history of affluent white people judging the parenting skills of everyone else. But I do think there is a limit to how much transformational education reform we can do in the United States without looking seriously at why raising kids is do damn difficult in our winners-take-all society.

If Waiting for Superman really talks about Finnish kids’ test scores without noting the radically different social context then that sounds like a pretty unforgivable sin. Finland is a very different place lacking a lot of the problems that poorly performing American schools are failing to overcome.

That said, this kind of thing can be taken too far. There’s a newish library branch in my neighborhood that’s quite nice looking. I don’t think anyone expects its existence to transform the radically transform the educational experience of children living in the area. And I bet reasonable people could disagree as to whether or not it made any real sense to build the library in the first place. But the library is there nonetheless, and the city is running it. So given that the city is running the library, we should try to run the library well. From the little things to the big things to the things that are core to the library’s function (deciding which books to stock) to the things that are peripheral (cleaning the floors in the bathroom) it all makes some kind of difference. And for any given quantity of resources allocated to the library, we should be doing our best to ensure that those resources are well spent. Whether or not there are other problems in the community that it’s beyond the capacity of the library to overcome, the public is still well within its rights to demand that the library be the best library it can be.

And that’s the real issue here. It’s great for skeptics about this or that proposed reform to how public schools operate to challenge the ideas on the merits. But the idea that it’s somehow unfair to be pressing for a more optimal allocation of resources is the flipside of destructive libertarian nihilism about the possibility of better-managed public agencies. And it actually makes less sense. If you want to argue (as I think liberals do) that it’s worth investing money in public schools, then you have to accept the corollary that the quality of the schools is important independently from other social issues.